Tuesday, April 10, 2012

In the Land of Dr. No

As the day wore on the tide moved up the beach pushing us closer and closer to the dunes. Finally we were driving through the surf and I felt that we had accomplished our mission. We had counted 615 dead dolphins and had evidence of the tragedy and necropsy samples that might shed light on what had produced this catastrophe.

We found an opening in the dunes and headed east toward the Pan American Highway. Initially we passed through an area behind the dunes that was flooded when the sea was high enough to crest the dunes. But it was now dry and reasonably hard. We made good time.

Our little fellowship consisted of Carlos and me, a driver, a tall female Dutch student and two female Peruvian members of ORCA-Peru. It was pretty cramped. A dangerous lot if I’ve ever seen one.

We then entered an area of powdery sand blown up into ridges that shaped just like waves. We’d go over the top of a crest then plunge into the trough. Hints of previous traffic were everywhere but no clear road to the Pan Am.

Eventually we found ourselves perched over a vast open pit mine. Massive trucks and earthmovers gouged the earth for phosphate. We made our way down tracks in the desert, occasionally stopping to ask guards in variously colored hard hats for directions. They looked surprised but pointed east.

Eventually we reached a huge conveyer belt and then saw the exit gate, which was open. As we approached it men in various colors of overalls and hard hats came running toward us. The gate was closed in front of us. We were in the land of Dr. No.

They asked for our IDs. Strutted around. Wrote on their clipboards. Carlos laughed saying “They’re so screwed because they’ve allowed a breach in security.” I thought, “They’re nuts to write this down. They should just pass us through and hope no one knows we got through their lines.”

Finally they let us out and we ran back to Chiclayo.

What were they afraid of; that we’d steal their phosphate? Or was there something in the mining process that was running into the sea. There was that one huge pipe running through the desert. The words “something evil this way comes,” ran through my mind.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Catastrophic Die-off of Dolphins Along Peru Coast

During February of this year there had been rumors of as many as 260 dolphins dead on the north coast of Peru. But some authorities dismissed the report. I backed off the story. But on March 23rd I received an email from Dr. Carlos Yaipen Llanos, Lima-based director of the marine mammal rescue organization, ORCA Peru, stating there had been approximately one thousand dolphins stranded along the north coast of Peru. Lest there be any doubt, stranded means dead in virtually all cases.

For a night I stared at the ceiling. What was the truth of what was happening along that bleak, desert coast, one of the most abundant fisheries in the world and mating and feeding habitat for huge numbers of dolphins, sea lions and birds? If the numbers were even close to accurate this would be among the greatest dolphin mortality events ever recorded. I called Dr. Yaipen. He had a man on the ground north of Chiclayo who confirmed large numbers of dolphins stranded along 200 kilometers of the coast.

I immediately packed my bags and booked a Delta flight for Lima the following day. Carlos met me at the airport. Our 6:25am flight to Chiclayo was cancelled due to Lima’s pea soup fog so we grabbed an overnight bus. We linked up with three young ORCA women who had done some scouting for Carlos. They confirmed dead dolphins on nearby beaches but had traveled only a few miles.

At 11am we packed into a four wheel drive Toyota pickup with a back seat cab and drove through San Jose to the beach, cranked a right turn and headed north at low tide on a beach that was mostly firm. Our goal was to find the thousand beached dolphins reported and were told the greatest concentration was three hours drive north. That was our goal and we determined we would not stop for anything else.

Within a few hundred yards we began to see dead dolphins. In ones and twos, then Carlos saw a Burmeister’s Porpoise. Some were highly decomposed while others were in the surfline freshly stranded. All were dead.

Carlos and his team performed necropsies on a couple of the dolphins. Seeing a new born common dolphin, umbilicus still attached was wrenching.

We raced along the hard sand at the edge of the surfline crying out when we saw a dead dolphin. At first they came every couple minutes. But then we’d hit intervals when the cries would go “dolphin! Delphin! Otro! Dos mas! There’s another one up by the dune.”

When I asked for a total from Carlos’ s assistant I was stunned to hear we’d counted over 200 dolphins. We hit a length of beach no more than 100 yards long in which we found ten dolphins of varying levels of decomposition.

The numbers continued to mount. By the time the rising tide forced us off the beach the count had reached 615, counted over 135 kilometers.

Dr. Yaipen Llanos and I had known each other for some four years. We’d become involved in a study of Peruvian fishermen who eat dolphin meat. While illegal, this is commonly done and the authorities do not have the resources to prevent it. But Dr. Yaipen Llanos had discovered something important. The fishermen who ate dolphin meat regularly had a disproportionately elevated incidence of diabetes. I had found diabetes in Taiji, Japan in two men who ate dolphin meat; not in itself significant but these were men who had no other symptoms. Both were lean, didn’t eat sugar. What they did eat was dolphin meat and a certain fish that is known to have high levels of endocrine disrupting chemicals – chemicals that also disrupt the way the human body utilizes insulin.

Read my blog on the connection between eating dolphin meat and diabetes immediately below.